Yesterday, the East were profiled and now it’s time for the Western Conference, as top-seeded Utica starts off the conference against the Chicago Wolves in some pretty even match-ups through and through.
(1) Utica Comets vs. (8) Chicago Wolves
One of the cornerstones of the Comets’ big season was the solid goaltending from both Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson. Both had 22 wins in the regular season and was the big factor for Utica getting the top-seed in the west. Also a key to that was the defense of Bobby Sanguinetti, who also chipped in with 40 points and six power play goals. Offensively, Alexandre Grenier potted 11 of his 17 goals with the extra-man, while Cal O’Reilly lead in scoring with Brandon DeFazio being the only 20-goal scorer on the squad.
Conversely, the Wolves are bringing a lot of scoring to the table, only being nine goals below the Comets overall. Those duties to try and break the Comets goaltending will be the three-headed monster of Shane Harper, Ty Rattie, and Jeremy Welch with Magnus Paajarvi adding his own touch just in time for the playoffs. The Wolves aren’t that bad defensively either, with Brendan Bell‘s acquisition being a strong addition at the deadline to help Jordan Binnington in net. Brent Regner has been solid on both sides of the puck, adding another cavet to the Wolves line-up.
(2) Grand Rapids Griffins vs. (7) Toronto Marlies
With league-leading goal-scorer Teemu Pulkkinen, you can tell that the Griffins are a high-scoring team; especially with Andy Miele on the roster and a possible reappearance by Landon Ferraro. The Griffins are getting help from all angles, though, as they got a lot of help from their youth movement– such as Anthony Mantha and Mark Zengerle— and should be ready to play “next man up” on their roster. That’s most evident from Tom McCollum stepping up in net with Petr Mrazek going to and from Detroit.
TJ Brennan could be the biggest pick-up of the deadline and he has come in to put up 16 points in his 19 games with the Marlies, back in his comfort zone that he made for himself. Brennan’s veteran leadership will help rookies like Connor Brown and Brendan Leipsic as the scoring leaders on the Marlies. There will be a lot of heat on Chris Gibson in net, but with Brennan and Brendan Mikkelson and surprising rookie Viktor Loov; Gibson will get plenty of support.
(3) San Antonio Rampage vs. (6) Oklahoma City Barons
Depth scoring is going to be the key for the Rampage. While Connor Brickley and Bobby Butler led the way, they were able to get key scoring from Garrett Wilson and Logan Shaw in way of goals, with Quinton Howden and Rocco Grimaldi playing the roles as set-up men. One question is whether or not Dan Ellis is the man who is going to help lead the way between the net. Despite Greg Zanon having a solid year as a veteran force, Ellis could be a hot-and-cold guy during the playoffs– which could be the worst time for it.
Since this is their last season in OKC, the Barons are going to try their best in order to prolong the end as much as possible. One of the questions could be who will be the top guy in net– Richard Bachman or Laurent Brossoit. Brossoit has played more games, but Bachman has the better numbers overall. A bigger loss offensively could be the knee-injury that hampered Ilro Pakarinen when he was in Edmonton. That said, Andrew Miller and Jason Williams have been the driving force up front, as Brad Hunt will be the defenseman who will be in charge of most of both offense and defense for the Barons.
(4) Rockford IceHogs vs. (5) Texas Stars
With their first playoff back in a while, the IceHogs are going to rely on their defense in order to win the series. Michael Leighton has been solid while taking over for Scott Darling, while Antti Raanta has been getting his footing underneath him despite his demotion. Rookie blueliners Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka have been solid, especially with TJ Brennan getting traded for Spencer Abbott (who put up 12 goals in 19 games with Rockford). Johns has been solid in his own end, while Pokka has been lethal on the power play with six power play goals.
The defending Calder Cup champs had a rough go about it early in the season, but Travis Morin and the Stars bounced back and have rounded into form at the right time. Morin, Brendan Ranford, and Justin Dowling were solid after a bit of a hiccup, while Jussi Rynnas weathered the storm when Jack Campbell had to readjust his game in the ECHL. One of the bigger issues will be if the defense can stand up the IceHogs offense– as Derek Meech, Maxime Fortunus, and Julius Honka, while contributing to the offense– lacked help in their own end. That said, there’s a decent amount of returnees from last year’s team– so the switch will be flipped as the games get underway.